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Detroit Urban Stringz II Youth Ensemble

P.O. Box 6555
Detroit, Michigan 48206

Cecelia Sharpe

By Tunde Wey
June 27, 2013

Cecelia Sharpe started Urban Stringz II Youth Ensemble in 2007 when she was teaching music in Detroit. "I had to figure out a way to engage students with strings instruments," she says. "I was teaching high school students orchestra and they weren’t really feeling playing traditional classical music but they still needed to learn so I started teaching music to them in ways they could relate to by adding rhythm – hip hop beats – to simple scales. I was like, 'If this is what they like then why not turn that into the way they learn.'"
After affecting her students with her own brand of musical training during the school year, they wanted more. They asked Sharpe to continue teaching them in the summer. She was initially hesitant, recognizing the (unpaid) commitment required, to say nothing of the expenses associated with renting a location, providing instruments and more. So her mother challenged her to open up a summer camp, offering up her own living room as incentive.
"So that’s how it started in the living room with eight kids. My mom would cook for them every day, breakfast and lunch, and we would take them on field trips because it’s important for them to know what we have to offer here in Detroit. The first summer camp was for two weeks, Monday through Friday, from 8:30am to 3:00pm. Their parents dropped them off."
Sharpe’s plunge into this project was a benefit of her youth. Now just under 30, at the time she was just out of college and only a couple of years removed from her students. Her proximity in age enabled her to practice the idea that if you are trying to teach a kid you have to meet them where they are, which has become the philosophical rail of her project.
Sharpe describes Urban Stringz II Youth Ensemble as "a strong youth ensemble that develops and enhances students' musical talents and abilities in addition to exposing them to our culturally rich and diverse society." The "diverse society" is Detroit, Sharpe’s home.
She started playing cello at the age of nine at Burton International School in Detroit. She carried on with that and started playing in another youth orchestra outside of schools and taking private lessons.  After that she attended the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts (DSA).  where she had a lot of performance opportunities afforded to her, giving her a chance to grow.
That’s also when she joined Civic Youth Orchestra; which exposed her to other kids in and outside of the city who were interested in music. "We got to play major works, Beethoven and Mozart. I majored in music education at Wayne State. That’s really when I got exposed to non-classical music; I started playing rock and alternative folk music, stretching the boundaries of the cello, and playing music that I liked to play.”
Sharpe, emerging from a classically-trained background, began to see music as much more than its traditional expression. She found the life in it, meeting other local musicians and lending her perspective to their musical stories. She joined Black Women Rock, an all-women rock ensemble, as well as some other local bands including Nick Speed Orchestra.
Sharpe’s broad musical experiences, which first found bloom away from her classical training and nurtured in the company of other musicians, was the necessary evidence she needed when she began Urban Stringz. She has since strengthened her program, moving it out of her mother’s living room.
"The structure has pretty much stayed the same, but now we have guest speakers and artists. Over two weeks they work on music and the last day of camp they perform for the community to showcase their work and share their gifts with other people. One day during camp they go on a field trip."
Last year the camp was at the Charles H Wright Museum and had 40 kids. This year it’s going to be at the Cass Commons.
Sharpe has also added additional training cohorts, allowing kids of various skill levels to participate, dividing her program into beginner, intermediate and advanced groups. The program has also been extended to include training during the school year. While some things have changed, others have remain stubbornly the same: Sharpe’s mother still provides meals to all the kids who attend camp.

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography

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